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5 Things I Look for in an Employer as a Person With Chronic Illnesses

I’ve been chronically ill for my entire adult life. I realized early on that in order for my participation in the workplace to be successful, I would need the support of my employer.

Lizzie Spencer

Since then, I’ve flourished in supportive environments, and in unsupportive environments, my stress would increase to the point that it damaged my health.

I’m privileged enough to be in a position where I’m a qualified and experienced worker in a field that’s notoriously hard to staff, which means I can afford to be picky about where I work and, as such, I look for some basic things from any potential employer.

1. They follow workplace laws.

Considering that following anti-discrimination laws, providing a safe workplace and not harassing staff about their health are the minimum standard all employers legally have to meet, a surprising amount of employers either don’t know or don’t follow the law.

An employer happy to break one law may more than likely break others, and disabled employees are vulnerable enough without having to worry about what laws their boss might ignore.

The laws will be different depending on your location and industry. They’re worth getting familiar with.

2. They accept my chronic illnesses.

I choose to disclose my chronic illnesses to potential employers during the interview process. This can be a really scary thing to do, since it can feel like you’re risking your chance for employment. When you’re desperate for work, sometimes it’s a risk you don’t feel like you can afford to take.

When I haven’t disclosed my illnesses, I’ve found myself worried about how to explain absences, the need for surgery or the amount of doctors’ appointments I have. In the end, my health issues have come out anyway with unpredictable results.

When I’ve disclosed my illnesses, I commence employment knowing where I stand. My employer knows I may need to take time off for tests, appointments or flare-ups, and I know I can tell my employer why I need time off without worrying what they’ll think.

Yes, there’s a risk that I won’t get the job, but if they’re not going to hire me due to my illness, then they’re not going support me while I work with it, and they’re not the kind of people I want to work with.

3. They know how to be flexible.

If part of my job is to write a policy, is there a reason I can’t do this from my couch while in my pajamas?

I’ll get it done faster if I’m comfortable and probably do a better job of it.

Is there a reason tasks requiring high levels of concentration have to be done on Friday when I’m at my most tired? Can we move it to earlier in the week when I’m going to find it easier and not risk making mistakes?

A supportive employer will explore these options with you.

4. They understand my illness impacts body language and my emotions.

Some days I literally can’t stand unsupported for more than a few minutes, and I find myself leaning on anything available. When I’m in pain, I tend to curl my feet up under me when I’m sitting at a desk. When I have to sit too long in meetings, my back will cramp up so I tend to shift in my seat a lot to try and prevent it.

These have, in turn, been incorrectly interpreted as me being lazy, disrespectful or dishonest by a boss who thought she was good at reading body language.

A good employer won’t attempt to psychoanalyze your every move. Instead, they will talk with you and try to understand if there’s an issue.

Some days, my health gets the better of me. If I’m tired, my patience might not stretch as far as normal. If I’ve had bad news about my health, I might be working while holding back a flood of tears.

When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I was naturally quite emotional. Even though I kept everyone informed, it was assumed my not-quite-contained emotion was me “being difficult” about an upcoming change at work. My boss took my lack of enthusiasm as a personal attack.

I feel a good employer won’t assume your emotions are about them. A good employer will talk with you and find out what’s happening.

5. They never link my health to my worth.

I’m prone to insecurities about my health. I find myself asking why an employer would take a risk on me when they could hire a healthy person.

These insecurities get compounded when employers decide not to hire me based on my health or try to get me to quit so they don’t have to deal with my health.

The thing is, I’m really good at what I do. Being chronically ill has taught me compassion, persistence and how to deal with adversity. It’s taught me the importance of not judging by appearances and how to think outside the box. It’s made me stronger, more thoughtful and far more resourceful.

And if an employer can’t see that, then it’s their loss.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s the hardest thing you deal with as someone with a chronic illness, and how do you face this? What advice and words of support would you offer someone facing the same thing? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.